Spontaneous Poetics – 38 (Reading List 9) (Charles Olson, Pablo Neruda)

Charles Olson (1919-1970)

AG: I was thinking originally, when I came in to move on from ballads to those songs – (Thomas Nashe, James Shirley – and I will get, I think, to Shirley at any rate), but I want to just finish off with this list up to, let us say, Charles Olson, because it’s up to that point that, after (Robert) Creeley, from Creeley on up, at least half the class has read something, so I’ll leave any further suggestions to a written list that I’ll make up. But of Olson, I‘d suggest the sections in Don Allen’s anthology, the first “Maximus” poems, the first “Songs of Maximus

Student: The Distances?

AG: No, I wouldn’t suggest that. Please, let me…

Student: Just a suggestion

AG: Will you just let me suggest the things that I think people can understand, to begin with? – So, the first Maximus songs (one little song about his kitchen tap that drips, the toilet that he has to get to work by putting it together with a rubber band, a little section that says, “You also sing”, so it’s from the first book of Maximus, the songs) – and a longer poem, detatched from Maximus, called “The Death of Europe – In Memory of Rainer (M) Gerhardt”, which has a very beautiful line, as he’s standing about Gerhardt’s (grave), a young kid poet, German kid, putting earth into the grave, putting some dirt in the grave, saying, “O that the Earth/ had to be given to you/ this way!”. It’s a really moving line. For those of you (who) have not read any Olson, I would start with those poems, then “The Distances”. (I’m trying to suggest things that people can get into, not…)

Student: No, I mentioned it (The Distances) as a book

AG: Well, as a book, but I’m not talking about books. I’m just talking about fragments of just two or three lines, that somebody can understand, Yes?

Student: Do you have any one that you could read to us, because I’ve tried..

AG: Olson?

Student: There’s an index in the back.

AG: Yeah, I guess I’d better use it, instead of figuring out.

Student: (There’s that poem) about tansy buttons, or something?

AG: Yeah..ok..

Student: There’s his poems here in this anthology

AG: Can I have (it)? Can you find the Olson in it? Ok, yeah, thank you. In the Don Allen anthology, the “I, Maximus of Gloucester, To You” and “The Songs of Maximus”.I’ll read a little bit out of those. He’s interesting because he was one of the innovators of writing by ear, and trying to measure out on the page his own speech, as it came out of his mouth, with a certain nervous speediness, laying out long lines as they would emerge from his mouth, hesitating, and putting one word down, and then hesitating, and then continuing out with another streak of speech” [Allen then reads from “The Maximus Poems” – “I, Maximus of Gloucester To You” – “By ear, he sd”/ But that which matters, that which insists, that which will last/ where shall you find it, my people, how, where shall you listen/ when all is become billboards, when all, even silence is/ when even the gulls,/ my roofs,/ when even you, when sound itself ..” – and, as reprinted in the Allen anthology, the first six “Songs of Maximus”, in their entirety – (concluding with) “Song 6 – “you sing/ you/ who also wants”)] – So it’s just his speech, divided into lines fast and slow. Most of that makes sense, doesn’t it?

Student: Yes

AG: The thing I liked was his comments in/on “The Death of Europe” (that poem to Rainer Gerhardt, that passage I spoke of) – “O my collapsed brother,/ the body/does bring us/ down/ The images/have to be/ contradicted/ The metamorphoses/are to be/ undone/ The stick,/ and the ear/ are to be no more than/ they are: the cedar/ and the lebanon/ of this impossible/ life./ I give you no visit/ to your mother./ What you have left us/ is what you did/ It is enough/ It is what we/ praise/ I take back the stick./ I open my hand/ to throw dirt/ into your grave/ I praise you/ who watched the riding/ on the horse’s back./ It was your glory to know/ that we must mount/ O that the Earth/had to be given to you/ this way!/ O Rainer, rest/ in the false/ peace/ Let us who live/ try.” – So that’s very clear and heartfelt. So that’s Olson at his early best. Clear, heartfelt. Concerned mainly with the discovery of American mind and clearing away the “musickracket of (all) ownership” or dead hand of Academic wooden repetition.

[Allen continues to consult his “survey”] – Over half have read (Robert) Creeley, (W.H.Auden), (Pablo) Neruda… For those who haven’t read Creeley, the easiest Creeley are his earliest poems, “For Love”. For those who haven’t read Auden, the easiest poems to get into are “In Memory of W.B.Yeats” and “September 1, 1939”, and a short love poem that begins “Lay your sleeping head, my love/ Human, on my faithless arm..” – That’s (from) about 1938 – Okay. So..there’s a swift survey of what you might read of these poets, that I made up out of a list of people I thought had written archetypal, or poems basically so moving or rhythmically so strong that they should be introduced into your nervous systems.

Student: What about (Pablo) Neruda?

AG: Well, for Neruda, there’s a really great rare poem, “Que despierte el lenador” (“Let The Rail Splitter Awake”) – that’s not so well-known. It was published in Masses and Mainstream, a press, which was a Communist press, in the (19)40’s, in a very good translation. It’s the best Neruda I’ve ever seen and I haven’t seen any good text (reproduction) of that. We may have a copy of it in the library. I think I got one last year. Does anybody know that? – “Let The Rail Splitter Awake”

Student: I think the New Directions [Grove actually] Selected Poems has that one in it.

AG: Do you know who translated that?

Student: Ben Belitt or something

AG: Grove…hmm..see.. there are lots of bad translations of Neruda around

Student: There’s a good volume of Nathaniel Tarn and W.S. Merwin and people like that translating him

AG: Yeah, we have that in the library.. Well, “Canto General” is reasonably well-done -(“General Song”), is ok – But, anyway, I would say, if you get a chance to look up the last sections of “Let The Rail Splitter Awake” by Neruda, they are marvelous. It’s the most moving of Neruda that I’ve read. There are a lot of very funny, Surrealistic, political poems in General Song” (which New Directions put out), a big long book, a long curse on Franco, seeing Franco in Hell, being washed by millions of babies’ eyes sliding past him, (a) sort of Surrealist horror image, actually..

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